I’ve seen a few usability labs. I’ve been running UX research in them for over 15 years — in the US, UK, Europe and Asia. A friend recently asked for advice on building out their first usability lab, so I started wondering what the perfect lab might look like.
Here’s my wish list with some pointers, mostly learned the hard way. I tried to think about the differing needs of three audiences — people who participate as research subjects, researchers who call the lab their home and stakeholders who come to observe the research.
What do participants need?
If you claim to be all-about-the-customer, make sure it’s a good experience from start to finish.
Ease of location.
An unambiguous address that is easily accessible by mass transit or road — with plenty of cheap/free parking.
A physically comfortable space.
- A pleasant waiting area with good guest wifi.
- Adjustable seating that accommodates a variety of shapes and sizes — including movable chair arms that expand out in case of a wide load.
- A room that’s the right temperature and controllable. Preferably a window to look out of.
- A well-ventilated space; nobody wants to smell the previous participant — be they a soap-dodger or overly perfumed.
- A glare-free screen. Avoid overhead lighting and paint the walls a light shade so the room doesn’t need to be harshly lit.
- A fridge full of refreshments.
- Easy access to a bathroom.
A safe and un-intimidating space.
People don’t like to feel like they are being tested or reminded that they are being observed.
- Dump the one-way mirror for less intrusive cameras. Hide as much of the technology as possible; pay attention to cable management.
- Minimise shared walls and don’t skimp on sound insulation. It’s excruciating if participants can hear observers react.
- Drop the ‘test suite’ and ‘observer room’ door signs in favour of something more neutral (e.g. ‘participant room’, ‘team room’).
- When laying out the room, ensure the customer doesn’t have their back towards the door — or they may feel trapped. Make sure any door locks can be disabled during testing to avoid the Fort Knox effect.
A phone charger. Somewhere to hang a coat.
What do usability researchers need?
A great space to collect data & collaborate!
Ready to go.
A well-documented system that’s easy to get up and running for new researchers. Tech support available for trouble-shooting problems.
Flexibility & realism.
A facility that lets you conduct different types of research — mobile & desktop, moderated from in the room, or from the observer room. A space that can mimic real world usage —whatever that may be for you (e.g. a store layout, a living room, etc.)
A brand-neutral experience.
Ideally, participants will have minimal exposure to the company’s brand, product and employees on their way into the lab.
- Consider a separate street address, so that participants don’t even know who is sponsoring the research ahead of time.
- Minimise interaction with company employees. Avoid having participants walk past rooms full of employees — who they will assume work on the product/design being tested.
- De-brand their experience as much as possible. For example, remove those industry awards, mission statements and dial back the corporate art.
Labs are full of expensive equipment. If you are doling out gift cards and cash, you’ll also want somewhere secure to store your reserves.
- A charging rack for multiple devices. A printer for last minute materials; preferably with a sheet-feed scanner for NDAs and other forms. Plenty of storage for tech bits and pieces.
- Oodles of white-boards in the observer room for note-taking, brainstorming.
- Great connectivity, both on the company network and an entirely separate guest network that simulates ‘normal’ Internet access.
What do usability study observers need?
The easier it is for stakeholders to observe the research, the more they’ll show up and the longer they’ll stay.
Ease of location.
Again, a findable location and a clearly labelled room that they can feel confident going into. (Stakeholders get nervous about walking into the wrong room. Several of mine have wandered into the lab itself which is awkward to resolve…)
The ability to come and go as they please.
They are fitting this in around their ‘day job’. A separate entrance will mean stakeholders can arrive late and depart early without fear of disrupting or bumping into the customer.
Great audio and video.
They want to hear the participant clearly, and be able to see exactly what’s going on. Keep those microphones away from the HVAC system! Get adjustable lighting for optimal viewing of a projector screen.
A productive space.
They need to get some work done between (and hopefully not during) sessions. Provide desks/tables for their laptops, good wifi, and somewhere to plug in.